Antioch artist Tullis’ exhibit, ‘Eyes Wide Open,’ showing in Benicia
By Lou Fancher
When John Tullis says he primarily looks for the effect of light on objects when selecting a subject or scene for a painting, half-believe him. The Antioch-based artist at the same time uses his well-trained eyes and hands to capture landscapes, people, animals, architecture and still-life compositions with underlying narratives that lift the work above photographic representation to visual storytelling.
The 12-by-16-inch oil-on-canvas “Fast and Loose,” just one example, features abandoned vehicles and construction equipment in a marina junkyard on the California Delta. There’s no wind, sound, temperature or backstory, yet something about the jumble of elements and soft-edge brushstrokes suggests a breeze, mournful bird sounds, chilly air and an era slipping into the past.
“I call it loose, realistic style, not photographic rendering,” he says. “A painter’s job is not to copy photos; that’s what cameras do.”
Tullis’ one-person show, “Eyes Wide Open,” is on display through Dec. 31 at Milinda Perry Gallery in Benicia. He works out of a home studio and has participated in group shows in the East Bay at Lynn House in Antioch, Livermore’s Bothwell Center and Valley Art Gallery in Walnut Creek.
“I titled the show as I did because everything I’ve learned and observed has involved looking,” says Tullils. “I paint in a contrasting style with a strong range of values. I’m showing a lot of my work, but I’m trying not to show things that I showed previously.”
The gallery’s two spacious rooms are in the front portion of a California bungalow-style home that houses a salon and upstairs residence. Tullis’ 28 paintings and 16 pastel charcoal drawings, arranged on the walls around a grand piano in one room and a bar area in the other, create intimate, living room-like settings for observation. Close observation is almost a religion for Tullis, especially in today’s image-dense atmosphere.
“Because of the data flying at us all the time as life gets complicated with images and sounds, we protect our brains. We make images that stand or symbolize things. We can’t take the time to really look, our heads are somewhere else. We’re thinking about other things.”
Tullis has thought primarily about the natural world ever since childhood — and never stopped. A curiosity about how things are made, why they look the way they do, had him as a boy growing up in Los Angeles surrounded by tract homes and freeways hopping on a bike and heading for the beach. His father, a hobby fisherman, taught him to examine tidepools. Memories of a half-dozen paintings by his Swedish maternal great-grandfather that his mother put on display in the home remain as permanent as impressions from nature.
“As soon as I could appreciate them, I thought they were the greatest. There wasn’t anything sophisticated, we weren’t a high-art family, but they’re unforgettable.”
After earning a bachelor’s of arts in graphic design at Long Beach State (now CSU Long Beach), Tullis migrated to San Francisco. A job designing books at Independent Printing in Richmond that began in 1974 surprised him by having become a 40-year career at one company.
“I did production, editing, taking photos, illustrating a book of U.S. presidents, management. Working at the printing company taught me so much about business. You have to be well-rounded, and so many artists aren’t. In the printing business, you’re creating things from scratch to final form. It was satisfying to get a book from manuscript to the end: a real thing.”
Painting is an activity Tullis resumed with renewed energy after participating in plein air (outdoor painting) workshops in the early 2000s. He paints onsite, then completes a work in the studio using reference photos he has taken. Making things with his hands is natural. “I have always done building, wiring, even plumbing. Painting is just an outgrowth.”
Looking, on the other hand, requires intentionality. Tullis teaches novice artists not to look down at their drawings.
“You make a mark, look again at the object or scene, make another mark. I tell people to notice volume and shapes. Anybody can tell if art is true or comes out of the imagination.”
Beyond control of the medium — paint, clay, textiles, metal or other materials — art for Tullis is an expression of culture and offers expanded world perception. There’s truth in art, he says.
“It’s not just painting real-life people and figures and putting them into situations. It’s taking what we’re comfortable with and twisting it, turning it around. It’s a scene with social commentary.”